A binnacle is a waist-high case or stand on the deck of a ship, generally mounted in front of the helmsman, in which navigational instruments are placed for easy and quick reference as well as to protect the delicate instruments. Its traditional purpose was to hold the ship's magnetic compass, mounted in gimbals to keep it level while the ship pitched and rolled. A binnacle may be subdivided into sections and its contents typically include one or more compasses and an oil lamp or other light source. Other devices such as a sand timer for estimating speed may have been stored in the binnacle as well.


The construction of many early (mid-18th century) binnacles used iron nails, which were later discovered to cause magnetic deviations in compass readings. As the development of the compass and understanding of magnetism progressed, greater attention was given to binnacle construction to avoid compass disturbances caused by iron.

With the introduction of iron-clad ships the magnetic deviation observed in compasses became more severe. Methods of compensation by arranging iron or magnetic objects near the binnacle were developed. In 1854, a new type of binnacle was patented by John Gray of Liverpool which directly incorporated adjustable correcting magnets on screws or rack and pinions. This was improved again when Lord Kelvin patented in the 1880s another system of compass and which incorporated two compensating spheres. These are colloquially known as "Kelvin's balls"[1] in the UK, and "navigator's balls" in the United States. Unlike most display binnacles today, which have the balls painted red and green to represent port and starboard side of the vessel, the balls were painted black or some other uniform color. The Royal Maritime museum at Greenwich, London, has an extensive collection of binnacles in correct colours. [2]

The ship's "binnacle list" is the medical department's report of personnel at sick bay, excused from that day's duty.[3]


Before 18th century bittacle, through French bitacle, from Latin habitaculum, a little dwelling.

See also


  1. "Ship's Magnetic Compass". Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment. Archived from the original on 2011-09-03. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  3. "Morning Report of the Sick". Hospital Corpsman Revised Edition - Complete Navy Nursing manual for hospital training purposes. Binnacle List. Archived from the original on 2011-06-29. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  • Alan Gurney, Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, ISBN 0-393-32713-2.
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